QB Bruce Gradkowski and the Bucs' offense found itself in difficult field-position situations all day Sunday in the Meadowlands
With New York Giants running back Tiki Barber held in check for most of the game, one might have expected the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to earn their third consecutive victory Sunday. However, the team's failure to take control of the field position game proved too much of an obstacle to overcome.
Against the National Football League's second-ranked rushing offense and the league's leading rusher, the Buccaneers' defense accomplished what other teams have failed to do all season: Make Barber a relative non-factor.
The same Buccaneers defense that has been gashed at times on the ground this season asserted itself against Barber, limiting him to a paltry 68 yards on 26 carries. Even more telling of the defensive performance was Barber's 2.6 yards per carry – a stark contrast to the 5.0 average per carry he had tallied entering Sunday's game.
The defense's success against Barber, said his twin brother, Bucs' cornerback Ronde Barber, was the product of well-timed eight-man fronts and effective coverage schemes on the outside. It was also the result of a commitment to stop Barber that was shared by every Tampa Bay defender. Only once did the Giants back really break into the open, gaining 22 yards on a cut-back run in the third quarter.
"You give him some room, and he's tough to deal with in space," said Ronde of his brother. "I think for the most part – [Tiki] even said so after the game – we did a lot of what other teams couldn't. I don't know how many yards he had on the game, but he only had one breakout run. Tiki's really good, and we all know that."
Okay, Tiki was shut down, job number-one accomplished. So what went wrong? Look no further than where each team started its drives Sunday.
While the Buccaneers' average starting field position was just beyond their 26-yard line, the Giants' average starting field position was their own 35. But even that figure doesn't convey how disparate the two teams were in terms of where their offenses began their possessions.
The Buccaneers began their drives beyond their 40-yard line four times, coming away with only three total points. The Giants, however, started a drive beyond their 40-yard line six times, including three times in Tampa Bay territory. Of those three, the Giants drove for touchdowns on two of them. They would be the only touchdowns the Giants would get all day.
"We've been trying to buckle down at the beginning of the game the whole time, but they had a short field," said cornerback Juran Bolden. "[The Giants] did what they were supposed to do. They capitalized on our mistakes and they made plays when they needed to."
But that beneficial field position didn't just help the Giants' offense; it helped make an aggressive Giants defense that much better. At the times the Giants' offense stalled, the team's special teams unit was able to take advantage of its position on the field and pin the Buccaneers' offense deep in its own territory.
"Our offense was in tough field position for most of the game, and it's tough in this league when you have that type of field position to drive the length of the field and score points," said linebacker Ryan Nece. "It was kind of back and forth, and just one of those games that you're right there holding onto the edge, and we just didn't come out with a victory."
With a rookie quarterback playing on the road and facing wind gusts of more than 40 miles per hour, the Bucs' offense floundered as it found itself backed up within the shadows of its own goalposts. In the first half alone, rookie passer Bruce Gradkowski was forced to begin drives from his four and five-yard line. And while the young signal-caller would offer no excuses for the offensive inefficiency, most attacks – even those led by veteran quarterbacks – struggle under such conditions. The Buccaneers would be no exception.
"It was definitely a tough game," said Gradkowski. "They are a good football team. Our defense fought hard out there. They kept us in the game. We've just got to score more on offense. We had a couple of tough penalties. We have to protect the football better. [There were] a couple of key mistakes. It was definitely a good football team we played here today. We've just got to keep fighting and just work on our mistakes here."
On a day when the league's leading rusher failed to take the game over and the opposing quarterback was only 16-for-31 for 154 yards, the Buccaneers still couldn't improve in the win column. That's the difference field position makes.
"We let another one get away from us," Bolden said. "We just couldn't get it done today for some odd reason. The good thing about it is the season's not over right now. We get to go back to work Monday, and see if we can correct those things."